What I wish I knew before trying to publish my first research paper | Chiara Ruggieri-Mitchell
When you start your PhD, you become aware that some of your peers may have already published one, or maybe multiple, research papers before they have even arrived at induction. You also discover that as part of the pathway you are on it is expected that you too will publish based on the research you undertake in the next few years, either during your PhD, or afterwards. But how do you go about doing it?
Whilst I am yet to undertake the fieldwork that will make up my thesis and ultimately a couple of research papers (fingers crossed!), I recently had my first paper published based on the research I undertook during my undergraduate degree. The decision to try and turn my undergraduate dissertation into a research article came from the suggestion to do so by my examiners. I had no idea what I was in for.
I’m not trying to scare you or put you off sharing invaluable research, I was just naïve as to what it would entail, and it was a steep learning process. I did this as a sole author and therefore my experience is reflective of that. I would recommend embarking on your first publication with co-authors or at least ensuring you have support from people who understand your research well enough to help with the process. Nevertheless, I thought I would give some advice based on my experience on what I wish I knew before embarking on the journey.
Cartoon by Kim (2014)
1. Get your ducks in a row
Plan, plan, plan!
Think about what specific question your paper is trying to answer. This will be the focus of your paper and enable you to structure your arguments in the most logical way. Ensure that you have sufficient data and analysis to support your arguments and discuss its relevance to other research in your discussion.
Make sure your data is organised
Keep a clear and organised record of all your raw data, the statistical analysis, references used and any other material as you will constantly be referring back to it. Increasingly now, you may be asked to grant access to this raw data as part of your publication. Back it up on OneDrive or the Cloud to ensure you always have access.
Draft and redraft
Writing a paper, like any form of writing takes practice. It is a very specific style of writing, and its content may vary somewhat between journals and types of paper such as commentaries or research papers. So, write and then re-write it. Ask for feedback from your peers, supervisors, or anyone you trust to give you constructive comments. Make sure your title is clear, concise, and engaging – it is sometimes easier to figure this part out after you have written everything else.
A picture is worth a thousand words – think visuals!
Use of graphs, maps, and diagrams saves words and keeps the reader interested. Ensure you include clear visuals that aid in your data presentation and help explain your data. Make sure that colours can easily be differentiated and try to make them as accessible as possible for those with colour blindness.
2. Finding the perfect match
Play the field
Finding the right journal for your research can take time but its arguably the most important step in the process. Take your time and shop around to see which ones might be of relevance. It is easy to get hung up on impact factors and the status of particular journals. While aiming high is always good, its also incredibly competitive and most importantly, it might not be the right fit for the subject matter of your current piece of work!
Get to know the journal
Before deciding to submit your work to a journal it is crucial that you understand its scope. This is usually outlined in the “About the Journal” section which outlines its aims and the variety of areas they are interested in publishing about. Make sure you are clear on what they are looking for. Have a look at what they have previously published. The “Guide for Authors” section will tell you what you will need to produce to be considered for publication and outlines the specific formatting styles. It will also outline their submission process and can give you an idea of how long it might take from submission to publication, including reviewer response time. Take a moment to read up on the editorial board. This will help you understand who might be reading your work before it goes to review and speaks to the scope of the journal too. Do they offer open access publication? If so, there is a large price tag attached to this so check if your affiliated institution has an agreement with the journal to cover the costs.
It’s a match – time to submit!
The “Guide for Authors” is your best friend. Everything you need to know is written here. However, if you do need any clarification, the support staff of journals are usually very helpful. Do not rush your submission. Ensure you have done everything that has been asked of you in terms of the accompanying documentation that goes alongside the manuscript. This usually includes a declaration of funding and a cover letter, for example. The cover letter is where you really sell the contents of your paper, so make it convincing! Check the manuscript for typos, spelling errors, grammar, and punctuation. Get someone to read over it to make sure it makes sense to them too.
3. The peer-review process
The name of the game
At point of submission, you may be required to nominate one or more people to act as referees for your manuscript. The best way to approach this is to explore the research field your paper is part of to understand who the scholars in this area might be. Try and provide a diverse list of potential reviewers who reflect different points of view and are affiliated with different institutions. These should not be experts whom you know personally nor who may have a direct conflict with your area of research.
Before the manuscript is sent for peer-review, it is initially reviewed by a member of the editorial board. They will decide whether the manuscript meets the scope of the journal and if it is a good fit for the publication. If it is deemed suitable, it will then be passed onto the reviewers for comments.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Receiving feedback is by far the hardest, and most important, part of the entire process. It is impossible to predict what the reviewers will comment on but expect a mixed bag of comments. There is usually some general feedback followed by comments relevant to specific lines in the manuscript. Some of the feedback can feel quite cutting and brutal but the aim of peer-review is to strengthen your manuscript not simply tear it to shreds. Take a moment to digest the feedback before making any changes.
Responding to feedback
One of the main challenges when responding to feedback is learning how to not only defend your work and the approaches you have taken, but also making the necessary changes asked of you. You will be required to make changes to the manuscript and to write a separate document where you respond directly to each comment and give new line numbers to show where you have made the changes. Ensure your responses are concise and remain polite throughout. There may be occasions where reviewer requests for changes go beyond the scope of the current piece of work in question and it is important that you can support your decision to not do so where necessary. It is often customary to thank your reviewers in the manuscript “Acknowledgements” section, but check that your journal allows for this.
Asking for help
There is training available as part of your PhD training pathway, either through ARIES or those offered at your institution, that can help you with the challenges of publishing and equip you with the necessary skills. Speak to your supervisors and peers about their experiences in responding to comments and get their advice. If you still do not understand one of the comments, it’s okay to ask for clarification!
Cartoon by Kots and Cals (2021)
4. If at first, you don’t succeed…
I put my paper forward to two other journals and was rejected outright by the editor. On my third attempt it went to review, I made revisions, and it went back to review for another round before I made a second set of revisions, and it was finally accepted for publication. The point is, do not give up! Do not let go of the value of your work just because the process can be difficult at times. If it is rejected outright, you may be asked if you wish to transfer it to another journal. Explore what these options are, and if the fit is good, you can opt for that instead of withdrawing and reapplying elsewhere – it saves time. Do make sure to take on board the comments from the editor should it be rejected and reflect on them to improve your manuscript for the next journal you approach.
Patience is key
It can take time! You will likely be waiting a while between the manuscript being sent for review and when you receive the comments. This is normal. It can be a frustrating part of the process, but you can usually anticipate how long this might take by looking up the specific journal review and publication times shown on their websites.
5. It’s accepted! Now what?
Party time (1)
First and foremost, this is a huge achievement and should be celebrated accordingly! Even if it is not officially published yet, the hard part is over. You will only publish for the first time once, so let that sink in. Take some time to appreciate all the hard work that you have put in to making this happen.
The final frontier
After your manuscript has been accepted you will be sent proofs of the document. It is vital that you set aside time to check through the entirety of the document and ensure everything is correct. The production team should pick up on any errors and show these corrections in the proofs, however that is not necessarily a guarantee that it is flawless. Check that nothing has accidentally been deleted in the editing and that it all looks and reads as it should. It is your responsibility to ensure the paper is perfect. Note that it is not possible to make substantial changes at this point, it is the time for final grammar checks, corrections to references, cohesive presentation of figures and tables and punctuation.
Party time (2)
Shout it from the rooftops
Share your paper on all platforms – from Twitter to LinkedIn to departmental newsletters and academic profiles such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu. If you do not have these platforms already, now is the time to create them. It is important to share your research as widely as possible. Make sure to include the DOI link wherever you share it. You want to draw as much attention as possible to your work to encourage citations and discussions around it.